There is a thin line between a welcome visitor and a destructive interloper.
In the waters around Pensacola, that line is slimy, prickly and covered in a crown of venomous spines.
The exotic looking lionfish, native to South Asia, first invaded local waterways about eight years ago, according to Rick O'Connor, the Florida Sea Grant Extention Agent for Escambia County.
Lionfish came to American waters after people began keeping them as pets in aquariums. In Florida, they were first spotted in open waters near Fort Lauderdale in 1987. As is often the case with invasive species, lionfish lack natural predators in Florida waters. They also lay a lot of eggs. In recent years, it has become illegal to sell lionfish as pets in the Sunshine State. You can still keep ones caught in the wild.
O’Connor spends a lot of his time educating the public about lionfish, how they harm our local environment and what we can do about them.
“The first record of one in our area was 2010 – the same year of the oil spill,” O’Connor said. “They quickly multiplied and became very dense on our artificial reefs.”
Lionfish have been documented to eat at least 70 species of common reef fish, including blennies, gobies and damselfishes. These are fish that larger fish – including some favored by anglers and seafood lovers – usually feed on.
“In recent years, there is evidence they are now consuming vermillion snapper, one of our important commercial fisheries. So, there is a concern.”
Lionfish do have one appealing aspect – they are delicious.
“Locals in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys have been consuming them for several years now,” O’Connor said. “The price is quite high, and it is not found on many menus. Most who have tried it, like it.”
Several of Pensacola’s nicest restaurants serve lionfish when it is available, including Jackson’s Steakhouse, the Tin Cow, Hopjack’s and the Ole River Grill in Perdido Key.
Harvesting lionfish is permitted year-round.
“Currently the only way to harvest a lot of them is spear fishing, and divers prefer warmer waters, so summer is the popular season at the moment,” he said. “They are working on traps and, if they find one that works, and the state will approve, they may begin harvesting in the cooler months as well.”
Most dive shops have information and equipment aimed at lionfish harvesting.
“We began having workshops and small removal tournaments in 2013,” O’Connor said. “The effort has grown quite a bit since that time."
Perhaps the biggest local lionfish roundup of the year locally is Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day, always set the weekend after Mother’s Day. This year, the event will be based in Perdido Key at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club and Ole River Grill. Last year, it was in downtown Pensacola at Palafox Pier.
Lionfish harvesting has even become a lure for tourists.
“We have had many calls from areas like the Midwest or Texas wanting to hunt lionfish,” O’Connor said. “Several local dive charters will work with them.”
For more information about lionfish and the Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day, visit reefrangers.com.